Lighting Up

by Margaret McNellis

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When I see people light up a cigarette, I wonder if they really know where it will take them. Sure, everyone knows that cigarettes increase your risk of getting lung cancer, that they’re linked to 80-90% of lung cancers. But how many people who smoke really know what that looks like? When my father was diagnosed, he had Stage IV non-small cell lung cancer. Two and a half months before that, he felt great. He was working, traveling, and we have a picture of him at my sister’s birthday dinner looking happy and healthy. Two and a half months.

He didn’t have a single tumor. When one of his doctors showed my mother and I his CT scan, it looked more like static on a television, like a blizzard. All the white stuff floating around in his lungs was cancer.

The cancer would have been a quick death. Less than two weeks after his diagnosis, it would have killed him if he didn’t go on emergency chemotherapy. I remember walking through the ICU, I saw another patient whose face looked like it was skin stretched over his skull. His cheeks were hollow, his eyes sunken, and his lips pulled tight. He was having trouble breathing. As scary as it was having a parent in the ICU, at least my dad still looked healthy.

The monitors told a different story. His heart rate was hanging out in the 150s even though he was resting, because he couldn’t get enough oxygen. His heart was working overtime to feed his brain and other organs. We had the “get your family here” talk with his pulmonologist.

My father wanted chemotherapy. He wanted to live as long as he could, fight as long as he could, but I think he knew before he started that he was on borrowed time. The rest of us realized that over the next three months, but what none of us knew was how sick the chemotherapy would make him, how fast he’d drop eighty pounds and begin the starvation process that would rob him of the ability to move around, to think clearly, to live. The chemo made it painful to eat, so despite our attempts to find foods he could handle, he ate less and less.

A lack of oxygen made it difficult too, and the more his stomach shrunk, the more even the tiniest of appetizers made it harder for him to try to fill his lungs with air. He got skinnier and skinnier until his collarbone protruded so much that were it not for the absence of any bruising or complaint, I might have thought it was broken. I could see his ribs through his shirt. He started to look like that man I saw in the ICU, that man who wasn’t my father and I hoped my father would never become.

My father used to smoke cigarettes. I don’t blame him for it; he did so at a time when the population believed they were healthy. Hell, doctors used to prescribe smoking, after all. Just because someone is addicted to cigarettes doesn’t mean they deserve lung cancer or chemo. All the same, whenever I see someone light up, it takes every ounce of control for me to not rip the damn thing out of their mouth and stamp it out on the ground. It takes every ounce of control for me not to hop up on a soapbox and ask them if they want their children to watch them starve, for food, for air, for just one more month or week or day. I want to ask them if they know what it looks like and feels like when someone actually fights that fight until the bitter end.

I’ve never smoked a cigarette. The smell has always bothered me. I don’t know if they taste good or not, but after watching my father fight lung cancer—which eventually metastasized to his lymphatic system, bones, and maybe even his brain—I know this: the end is always bitter.

There’s never enough time at the end, no matter how much time the chemotherapy bought. I always wanted one more day, one more hour, even after my father slipped into a coma. The hospice nurse told us that was the final stage before death, evidence the body was finally shutting down. The morning that he died, on Friday, September 6, 2016, I told my father it was okay to go. I wasn’t okay with it, really, and I never will be. But I said those words, because he needed to hear them, because it was time.

Someone my age or younger once apologized for lighting up as we walked down a sidewalk. “It’s okay,” I said.


by Mickey Fisher


I wish I’d brought headphones with me. There’s a song I know of that I always thought I’d listen to, here at the end. Nobody plans to be half a world away at times like these, so I sat alone and waited out the night. So the chorus goes.

I sit by my dad’s bed and stitch memories together.

We were all going on a road trip; this was before my mom divorced him. I was in the area of six years old, and sitting in the back seat with Clay. My dad was the only one not in the car; he was looking for something in the house before we left, sunglasses, maybe. I leaned over the center console, plucked his Marlboro Reds from the dashboard, and placed them on top of the rest of the trash in the little plastic bag that we used for car waste. I didn’t bother hiding the cigarettes under the tissues and wrappers that were already in the trash. I figured I’d be in enough trouble as it was. He came out to the car and asked us where his cigarettes were. His voice was already half-raised. My eyes gave the answer away. I thought he’d yell at me, but instead he said, “I know they’re bad for me.” Then he took them out of the trash.

A wedge of light from the hallway fluorescents cuts into his room in the rehab center. There’s no door to block it. No doors means that nurses can flit in like moths if they have to, administering food and water and drugs. I sit outside of the light’s path, next to him. I can’t tell if he’s conscious or not. If he is, his eyes are pointing at a TV set that’s turned off for quiet hours. Who knows what he sees.

He promised a blue Mustang to my brother and me one Christmas, when we were no older than ten. He wasn’t there to promise it to our faces, but he wrote out a note in wobbly black pen on a piece of note paper. He had a friend, he explained, who was going to sell the blue Mustang to him, and then he’d give it to us. I believed that he intended to. Our mom told us not to get our hopes up, and we didn’t.

I smell a false smell of vodka. I’m cycling between holding his hand and using too much hand sanitizer. I’d never known him to like vodka; he’d preferred Budweisers. When we’d worried about the beers, we should’ve been paying more attention to the cigarettes in his shirt pocket. The machine dispensing the sanitizer growls at me as I stick my hand underneath its sensor again.

After I graduated from college, I got a call on a rainy Friday on my way in to work. My dad was sick. I became his proxy. His initial illness led to the discovery of something worse. I got him into Mass General, the best-case scenario. I’d visited him on sunny Saturdays in Boston, watched horror movies with him in his room. I’d pushed him in a wheelchair to the meeting with the specialist, who’d told my dad that if he refused treatment, he’d be dead within a year. He’d refused that treatment thirteen months ago.

I check Facebook, the hotline to Clay. My brother is stationed in England and organizing a flight home with the Red Cross. I’d sent him the rehab center’s number and was waiting for him to call their phone. He wants to speak to our dad before he passes, and I don’t want to see how high the charges will be on my own line. There are no bright red notification badges interrupting the bold blue header of the site. I close the app.

A thin blue curtain hangs between my dad and his neighbor in the room. I hear the other man breathing in his sleep. I hear the calm beeping of machines. I do not hear the ring of the phone at the reception desk. Not yet. So I sit alone and wait out the night.